Right now, sexual abuse and misconduct are in every other headline. From Hollywood to the Heartland, an ever-increasing number of men are having to reckon with the pointed fingers and spoken accusations from those they’ve assaulted. Women (and men) are coming forward to stand up for themselves and to stand up to those who hurt them and as a result, men of unfathomable power are tumbling off their towers like Hans Gruber in Die Hard. This is important. This is necessary. This will change the world.
I, like many others, have felt satisfaction in seeing these men lose their power and influence. Their actions have gone without consequence for years but at the behest of the brave people who’re putting their employment and reputations on the line, those tides are turning in a very visible way. But at some point, after the first big waves of headlines rolled in and the immediate feelings of “another one bites the dust and good riddance to them” subsided, I began to reevaluate how I thought about these men. I’d become accustomed to seeing them as nothing more than damned faces under ominous headlines—all traces of their humanity shorn from them. “THIS IS A VILLIAN,” the headlines inferred and we, the public, mercilessly and justifiably ranted and posted as such. The case was closed on whether or not we’d support them again—we would not—and the implications of their guilt painted a fairly bleak picture of who they are on the inside—not pretty—but as I heard and read statements like “their life is over,” I wondered if grace would ever reach them. That’s an odd thought to have especially in the middle of our culture-wide torches-and-pitchforks march to remove these men from their seats of influence and importance. It’s entirely counterintuitive to the newsprint narratives. But still, it’s what I wondered.
My question wasn’t about grace in terms of forgiveness that overrides consequence—wrongs beget consequences and that doesn’t change—but grace as pertains to forgiveness in a spiritual sense. This grace isn’t about re-admittance to the party or reentry to their now soiled careers, but grace for their souls. In thinking about these people as that, as people, I wondered if after the consequences for their actions play out, after the firestorm around them has ended, after they’ve come to terms with their wrongs and exhibited true penitence for them, does grace cover them like it covers you and me after we’ve messed up?
Though it’s a relatively new concept in my life, I believe grace extends farther than our minds think it can. I grew up thinking there was a grace limit—like buoys that partition off the swimming section of a lake—but more and more, I’m reminded that God is bigger and more expansive than my imaginary buoys. Still, even being a believer in a grace that’s as expansive as the God from which it emanates, I’m left with questions about just how far it goes. I think those questions are natural because for most of us, grace extends precisely as far as our own experiences. There’s a level of grace we’re comfortable with because that’s the grace that we know. We lived it, we felt it, we came to terms with it, we rebounded within it. It’s much harder to see the grace that exists outside of what we know—to the situations we don’t understand or don’t agree with.
When I was younger, the stories that saturated the news were about priests who’d done horrible things to altar boys. I remember as the news cycles wore on, I began to connect some spiritual dots in my head—the dots between my pastor saying grace is for even the worst of sinners and the people on TV saying these accused men were monsters—and that made me wonder: Does grace extend to those priests? It was an odd and almost icky thought—considering those men as humans and not as monsters. It’s icky because they’re evil and we’re not. Game over. End of sentence. At least that’s what’s hammered home to us. They are the bad, we are the good. So within that framework, it’s understandably uncomfortable to consider grace may possibly extend to those men as well as us—that we are somehow on the same eternal playing field as someone who did unconscionable things to the children they should’ve been caring for. So, as odd and uncomfortable and icky as it was to ask then, the question has once again floated up to the surface: Does grace extend to people who society considers too far gone?
When I was in elementary school, I was a part of an organization run by the church that was ultimately a Super-Christian version of Boy Scouts. Our leader was a fun guy, tall and lanky. When he laughed, he’d throw his slender head back and his top teeth would show as he guffawed loudly in short cadences. He was our camp counselor in the summer, our troop leader on Wednesday nights, he’d married the pianist in the choir and was liked congregation-wide. He was one of those adults we believed in and for whatever reason, elevated to earthly sainthood. This happens quite often when we’re young.
After we returned from one of our many camping trips—trips I loved because I got to spend the weekend in the woods roasting marshmallows with my friends—one of the boys accused our leader of molesting him. When my parents told me, I was blindsided. I never knew anything was suspect about him at all. I felt like it couldn’t be true. How could it be? That man was our leader who we loved. He wouldn’t possibly do the horrible things they said he’d done.
The church took the accusation seriously and he was removed from leadership. Though there wasn’t any proof he molested the boy at that time, the church leadership knew what they were doing. The entire situation left me heartbroken and I resented him for leaving our group and our church. But as time rolled on, my sharp feelings on the topic dulled. Life went on and I tried not to put too much thought into something so icky.
It would be years before his name came up again in conversation. I wish it hadn’t. This time, there was undeniable proof he molested two boys at his new church. He plead guilty and was sentenced to twenty years in prison when he was 42 years old. Though it had been almost seven years since he’d left our church, I once again felt like that ten-year-old boy, heartbroken and in disbelief.
I’ve wanted to talk to him again, just to see what words would come out of my mouth. I suppose I’d like an opportunity to tell him that even though what he did was simply awful, the impact he’d had on my young life was not. He was one of the first adults who wasn’t my parent or my pastor who took the time to invest in my life and encourage me. For example, he chose me to lead the worship songs around the campfire because he knew music was something I was good at. In the same way, he’d have another one of the boys lead the basketball tournament because that’s what they were good at. He never tried to change who we were growing into, rather he encouraged us to walk confidently in our individual gifts and to know we had a purpose. We were important. We mattered.
But no matter how much good he did, he also left a hole in the trust mechanism of my life. I’d want to tell him that as well. When he left the church, I was too young to process the full gravity of what happened, but I was old enough to understand the feeling of loss. The leader I loved and spent my time with, the leader I trusted to tell me about God and faith and hope, that leader’s actions shattered my truster. I wouldn’t begin to heal and chance trusting another non-parental adult until I graduated out of our faux-Scouts program and joined the youth group.
Ultimately, his story is no different than the Catholic priests who engaged in the same behavior. Those men became vilified punchlines, jewels on the pyrite crown of hack-job faith. But is God done with them? Is God done with him? Are the remaining years of their lives one long purgatory before a speedy descent to Hell? That’s what my human brain defaults to but in my heart, I have to believe that as soul-crushingly awful as the things were that they did to those boys, God’s grace can fill the broken places at some point. God uses grace as a grout to keep us from falling irreparably apart, so why wouldn’t that apply here? I’d tell him that too. I’d also tell him I forgive him for hurting me. He never did anything inappropriate with me, but he broke my truster and that took time to repair.
It’s a dark moment when you realize for the first time that your leaders, pastors and parents are also people and therefore aren’t immune to the pratfalls that come with being human. It substantially levels the playing field. I don’t have the same temptations as my troop leader but I’m not without struggles of my own. There are days when I have to ask God for grace. There are moments when I feel like a pest for asking yet again, when I wonder if I’ve run out of chances and if the well is now dry. I wonder how many times my troop leader sitting in a prison cell has asked for and felt the same. But I’m reminded God wants to extend grace to us. God’s not a hoarder, God’s a giver, and if God has enough grace for me, then there’s enough for everyone else—be it in in prison cells or cubicles or chapels or condos or Congress.
That last one’s hard to stomach right now because there are quite a few people in Congress who I loathe with the intensity of a thousand suns. But Romans 3:22-24 reads, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace…” That word all includes you and me as well as those we consider too far gone. It includes those people in Congress who I believe are evil incarnate and it includes the people who did unimaginable wrong. There’s that icky concept again—that grace showing up in situations we don’t understand.
So does grace extended to my troop leader? I believe it does. That would mean it extends to those men in the headlines of yesterday and today as well. No matter how icky, there’s grace enough to cover the ick. But that grace, that soul-cleaning grace, is up to God. We, however, have an entirely different sort of grace we need to act on in this pivotal moment.
While the headlines today may seem to be pointing at the villains, what they’re really pointing at is the need to believe the victims. For uncountable years, victims have been silent, often because they knew they wouldn’t be believed anyway. After my troop leader was removed and he left the church, my troop moved forward with a new leader. One of our next outings was to Six Flags, a place I rarely got to go to as a kid so I was excited about being there. We broke into small groups and I stuck with my friend and his father, a man who’d also served as one of our troop’s leaders. While we were in line for one of the rollercoasters, my friend’s father looked at me and said, unprovoked, that the boy lied about the events at that camping trip so he could get our leader into trouble. He said he was just a messed up kid trying to get attention. He said there was no proof anything ever happened and that the boy was a liar. That bothered me then and as I’ve combed through it again, it really bothers me today.
That father’s unsolicited defense didn’t confuse or change how I felt in the wake of what happened, but looking back on it today, it perfectly underscores the fact that we, as humans, need to believe our fellow humans when they say something horrible has happened to them. Especially our youngest humans. By listening and not dismissing them, we aren’t just doing the right thing, we are doing the graceful thing.
I don’t believe our anger is misplaced when we read about a powerful man being accused of assaulting women simply because he could. It’s wrong and wrongs make us angry. I don’t know about you, but in those moments, I find myself wanting God or karma or CNN or a heady mixture of the three to give them what they deserve. I can’t help it, I’m human, and though their wrongs are not the same, those men are having to face the consequences for what they’ve done just like my troop leader. But I believe those consequences are not the end of their stories. As Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats last,” and that grace reaches much farther and much deeper than we can imagine. That grace is the grace that can actually save a wretch like them, or him, or me, or you.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.